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Epidemiologist looks at pandemic numbers in South Dakota

Published: Nov. 19, 2020 at 6:17 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) -COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to surge here in South Dakota. But according to Governor Noem, the state is “doing well” statistically.

In a news conference Wednesday, Governor Kristi Noem refuted reports indicating the state is in a dire situation. She told people to look at the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center to check the facts for themselves.

So Dakota News Now spoke with Jennifer Nuzzo, Lead Epidemiologist for the testing portion of Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. She says some of the data is concerning.

“Well to put things into perspective that the number of new cases on a per population basis that South Dakota is seeing is 4 times that of New York. So you know, you’re obviously a less dense state in terms of population. So to have that kind of per capita infection rate is quite worrisome,” said Nuzzo.

Nuzzo got this information based on November 17th case numbers.

At her press conference, Governor Noem said this about new confirmed cases over the past seven days: “There are other states with far higher new confirmed cases per 1,000 people compared to South Dakota.”

Map is from 11/18
Source: Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
Map is from 11/18 Source: Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center(Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center)

These numbers do change daily, Nuzzo walked me through what the numbers looked like Thursday Nov. 19th.

“You really need to look at more than a week’s trend to see, but you know still it looks like South Dakota is one of the worst. North Dakota is 1.66, Kansas is 1.86 so South Dakota follows with 1.57,” said Nuzzo.

Source: Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center 11/19
Source: Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center 11/19(Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center)

Instead of daily totals, Nuzzo recommends looking at at least a 14-day average or longer.

“That will tell you if you know you’re headed in the right direction or if things are getting worse,” said Nuzzo.

Nuzzo also suggests looking at test positivity, which is the percentage of tests performed that come back positive or the percentage of people tested who come back positive.

“As the test positivity goes up what that starts to tell me is that we are probably only testing the sickest of the sick and probably missing a lot of other infections that are out there. And were we able to diagnose those other infections, the case numbers would be much higher,” said Nuzzo.

She says it can help a state measure if it’s doing enough testing and can help interpret case numbers.

“South Dakota’s test positivity has been quite high for quite some time, which suggests that there are probably people out there who are infected who may not know it. Or people who are just not getting tested and they are not getting counted as cases, but they could very well be spreading their infection further,” said Nuzzo.

Source: Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center 11/19
Source: Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center 11/19(Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center)

Nuzzo says this indicates that more testing needs to be done in South Dakota.

At her press conference, Governor Noem encouraged people to look at the state’s mortality rate over the course of the pandemic.

“It’s the wrong message and the reason why it’s the wrong message is that that is not a fixed parameter of this disease. That can very much change,” said Nuzzo.

“And part of why it varies from places is due to the age of the cases and if it’s mostly young people who are getting sick now, you’re percentage of cases that result in deaths are going to be low,” said Nuzzo.

“But it’s not going to stay that way. You know, as the numbers of infections in the surrounding community increases, that puts pressure on places like nursing homes.

For a good overview, Nuzzo recommends checking out the South Dakota state overview page.

We did reach out to the governor’s office this evening for comment on this story. Her communications director sent us this response:

“We have serious concerns with how Johns Hopkins reports test positivity by state, especially since the numbers that they report do not track with the more accurate information that is available on SD DOH’s COVID data dashboard. Please note that SD DOH has our 14-day positivity rate at 19.4%.”

You can visit the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center here.

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